SSO Opera House concert 25 November 2015
Edo de Waart, who was chief conductor and artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra between 1992 and 2003, returned to the Opera House to conduct the final concert in the APT Master Series last night. I found it inspiring, writes Fraser Beath McEwing
Two preludes from Wagner’s Lohengrin were bookends for a substantial organic middle featuring visiting Notre Dame organist Olivier Latry.
I could imagine the SSO program meeting when somebody said “Look, if we’re going to power up the organ for Strauss’s Zarathustra, and make poor Olivier climb the stairs to play it, we ought to throw in something else while he’s up there.”
Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante was the result. Unlike Thus Spake Zarathustra, where the organ does little more than shudder the Opera House foundations to start the symphonic poem, Jongen’s work promotes the organ to that of a busy concerto soloist.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The concert opened with Wagner’s Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1, announcing itself with exquisite, barely audible strings and then building passion, layer by layer. Almost immediately, I joined de Waart’s fan club as he continually extracted unhurried richness, texture and colour from the orchestra.
To me, Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante was the highlight of the concert. It is rarely performed, little known, and by a Belgian organist/composer who few people (me included) have experienced. It deserves better recognition, although Jongen, (1873 – 1953) was his own worst enemy. He withdrew many of his works because he didn’t think they were good enough. The Symphonie Concertante has survived as his best-known composition, but there are more than 200 others that probably have some gems among them.
Falling midway between a symphony and a concerto, it runs for about 35 minutes over four movements. Beautifully orchestrated, and giving the organ the opportunity to hit its straps, often solo, there are stylistic reminders of Franck, Ravel, Holst and Vaughn Williams without plagiarising any of them. Moving between driving rhythmic figures and mysterious whispers, the music is never tedious. There was a remarkable moment in the third movement (molto lento misterioso) when flautist Janet Webb blew the longest note I’ve ever heard in one breath from the instrument and didn’t fall off her chair. And if you like an air-punching, explosive finish you won’t hear better than the end of the final movement. It even had the usually mini-movement de Waart stirring invisible ponds and scooping up handfuls of air as he flew down the straight.
The second half of the concert was like a mirror image of the first. Richard Strauss’s Nietzsche inspired Thus Spake Zarathustra is a great favourite of concert audiences, especially after Stanley Kubrick bit off the beginning for his famous movie. Zarathustra also takes advantage of organic power, but leaves the organist seated and largely unemployed for all but the beginning of the piece. I think the program would have worked better with the two organ/orchestra pieces played in reverse order, so that we got more organ as we went along, rather than less.
Although a few musicians came and went throughout the four pieces, the orchestra was at full strength for most of the time. Eight bull fiddles can vibrate the backbone to say nothing of the atom-smashing effect of two well blown tubas. There were some grand sounds on offer.
To end the concert, and as a farewell to the APT Master Series for the year, the orchestra belted out the three minute long Lohengrin Prelude to Act III by Wagner. Taken out of its operatic context this becomes a crowd-pleasing bonbon. It sent everybody home with a spring in the step, and a feeling that this had been an uplifting and satisfying evening.